Monday, October 7, 2013

Ico - It's like one long Zelda dungeon

Ico used to be a fairly unknown game. It was going to be a PS1 game, then ended up on PS2 (in 2001), and was remastered with HD textures for PS3 (in 2011). When it first came out, it didn't fit in with the games that were popular at the time. It was pretty mellow and not all that long. It had fighting, but it wasn't the focus. It had a story, but only a few cutscenes in the whole game. Its audio was almost exclusively ambient sounds and the quest's only location is in and around one big castle. It was kind of a middle ground between modern "art games" and traditional games.

Anyway, it was quite good and became something of a cult classic. I recently played through it for the first time, thanks to the HD version on PS3 and figured I'd write about it, just in case some of you haven't heard of this gem or have passed it up until now.
Many of Ico's vistas do a lot with a little to create some truly beautiful scenes.
Essentially what we've got here is one long Zelda dungeon which you progress through by using just a few simple gameplay mechanics. Those mechanics are: climbing and swinging on stuff, pushing stuff, guiding your companion, Yorda, around, lighting things with sticks, and cutting things with swords. None of this is terribly complicated, but it's still rewarding to progress through to the next area, if only to see what breathtaking view awaits you. This simplicity of gameplay also allows a level of immersion that is unencumbered by any semblance of HUD or text-based tutorial. The conditions for a game over are similarly simple: either you fall off a cliff or Yorda gets captured.
Yorda's in no hurry, but if you are, you can drag her around by the hand.
Preventing Yorda's capture is the other focus of the game, but that's not to say that this is like one of those escort missions that everyone hates. You'll find Yorda early on in the game and will need to lead her around the castle in order to open certain doors. You can also call to her at any time and she'll come to you if she's able. Sometimes getting yourself across an obstacle is easy enough, but the real puzzle is getting Yorda across too. Also, periodically, shadows will appear that will attempt to take her away. You can beat them back with your sword or stick or just try to run past them. The combat here is unfortunately rather simplistic and repetitive, but luckily there isn't all that much of it in the game. These shadows only appear at scripted points, so it's not like you'll be constantly needing to worry about whether your companion is being attacked (and if she is while offscreen, you'll be notified).

The game in its entirety isn't too long, and shouldn't take you more than five hours to beat on your first time through. Even though it's short, it seems to be just the right length for what it is. Although it has very few cutscenes, it manages to build to a rather exciting and emotional climax and ending. Like with the horse in Shadow of the Colossus, you're likely to develop a sense of attachment to Yorda after your few hours of escaping the castle together. Ico HD also offers an incentive to play through a second time, with a New Game + mode and trophies. In New Game +, you'll be able to see what was being said during certain cutscenes that were in a different language, have a second player control Yorda, and get a slightly different ending.

(Check out my girlfriend and I playing through the entirety of Ico in New Game+)

For a PS1 game turned PS2 game turned PS3 game, Ico stands the test of time fairly well. The updated graphics look good enough, though certainly not outstanding by any means. As far as gameplay is concerned, I thought that fighting would have been better had it contained a bit more variety of attacks and enemy AI. Also, jumping and climbing on chains was something of an all-or-nothing affair, with jumps either sending you flying or having no lateral distance at all, and movement up and down chains not stopping until long after you released the joystick. Apart from those minor gripes, I can still confidently recommend this game to anyone who has yet to play it. It may have been hard to come by for PS2, but now that there's the HD remastered version available, you have no excuse for not playing it.

(If you like mellow, offbeat games, you might also be interested in Boku no Natsuyasumi 3, a Japan-exclusive PS3 game in which you enjoy your summer vacation on your uncle's farm in rural Hokkaido.)
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